UK HealthCare

Combined Effects of Tobacco Smoke and Radon Put Kentuckians at Heightened Risk of Lung Cancer

LEXINGTON, KY. (June 15, 2015) -- In Kentucky, a trifecta of risk factors contributes to high prevalence of lung cancer.

While high smoking rates and weak or non-existent smoke-free laws in Kentucky are undeniably linked to high rates of lung cancer, the soil underground also poses considerable dangers. Exposure to radon -- an odorless, tasteless gas that escapes from our limestone-enriched landscape, also increases a lung cancer risk. Finally, our laws don't adequately protect Kentuckians through mandated testing and monitoring of radon levels or smoke-free protections.

We need to be vigilant about monitoring both exposure to radon and second- and third hand smoke particles in the home. The risk of lung cancer increases 10-fold when a person is exposed to both high levels of radon and tobacco smoke. In fact, most cases of radon-induced lung cancer occur in those also exposed to tobacco smoke. Here are a few ways to reduce your risks: 

Minimize your exposure to second- and third hand smoke. Radon gas and tobacco smoke particles stick to each other, and when both are inhaled, the damage to DNA in the body is elevated. Don't permit smoking in your home and car, where recirculating particles give off third hand smoke long after the visible smoke is gone. Do not permit smoking at least 20 feet from all entryways, vents and windows. When smoking outside, smokers need to cover their clothes with a jacket to avoid bringing third hand smoke into the home. Quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do to protect your health and your family.

Don't assume your home is radon-free. Testing your home for radon is easy and low-cost. Some health departments provide free test kits or you can buy one at most home improvement stores. If you're buying a home, test for radon during a home inspection. If you're a renter, ask your landlord about radon testing.

Test your home for radon every two years. All homes and buildings need to be monitored for radon levels every two years. If your home tests at an EPA rating of 4.0 or above, it's imperative to invest in a radon mitigation system. It doesn't matter if your home is old or new, or if your neighbors have low radon levels.

Get a professional to install a system to solve the problem. Cracking windows or ventilating a basement won't reduce levels of radon. If your radon levels are high, call a certified radon mitigation company to test your home.

If someone in your home smokes cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, you may be eligible to participate in a research study underway at the University of Kentucky examining combined effects of radon and smoke. For more information about the study, send an email to UKFRESH@LSV.UKY.EDU or call 859-323-4587.

Ellen Hahn, Ph.D., is a professor in the University of Kentucky College of Nursing and College of Public Health, and she directs the Clean Indoor Air Partnership and Kentucky Center for Smoke-Free Policy.

This appeared in the June 14, 2015 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader